Mons. Jack Egan and Chicago

8:23 PM

This fine book, An Alley in Chicago: The Life and Legacy of Monsignor John Egan, tells an important story of the Church in Chicago before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council through the life and experience of one of the city's more notable inhabitants, Jack Egan. (An earlier, 1991 edition is available for free here.)

Simply put, I loved this bittersweet book. Jack Egan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, led a life that is difficult to summarize: priest, pastor, community organizer, and activist are but a few words. A teacher once told me, "To tell me who you are, tell me who your friends are." This book, populated by Egan's many friends, tells us a lot about who he was. Many of the names were known to me, certain names were people whom I had met, and a select number of them are people that I have known well, and a few are still with us. The story is bittersweet for three reasons: first, for those recalled in the book who have gone on to their eternal reward; second, for the beauty of a church that in many ways no longer exists; and third, most personally, for the beauty of the life of this admirable priest and the challenges of imitating his life today.

An Alley in Chicago rubs elbows with many of "the greats" from that period around the Council. A Catholic historian seeking to write a dissertation on laity in the American Church in the Conciliar era would find many worthy leads in this book starting with Pat and Patty Crowley. Egan was in the vanguard, at the forefront, always. He was among the first Catholics to march at Selma, and his witness signaled support to many that followed. Egan worked with Saul Alinsky during legendary days in Chicago. Many who I have read and admired make appearances: Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and labor priests like Monsignor George Higgins.

In the index, I counted 23 people that I have met personally, several of whom I have known a bit more closely, especially those from Egan's days at Notre Dame. Naturally, the names of Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., Jim Burtchaell, C.S.C., Louis Putz, C.S.C., and his recollection of days at Moreau Seminary stir deep feelings in me, as well as Fr. Richard McBrien and Jim and Evelyn Whitehead. The book also recalls Fr. Joe Fichter, S.J., who resided with us at Moreau during my senior year. We had some lovely conversations, and, at the time, I had only faint notions of his extraordinary role in working for racial justice. 

Personally, as my notion of priesthood evolved, I yearned to be a priest in the mold of Egan and the labor priests. I feel so keenly that this witness is essential to the Church today. I also feel that some of Egan's method and priorities are reflected in Pope Francis. Part of what stirs me in Pope Francis' example are the same things that stir me in Egan's witness. Sadly, for a whole host of reasons, I came to know that I could not continue in this path. I do pray that others will take up their mantle, but I believe that there are structural challenges that impede the emergence of this next generation of priest like Egan, especially in the declining number of priests relative the burgeoning number of laity. Amid the demands for sacramental care, a priest free to act as Egan did is rare. Secondly, we remain too cautious in spite of Pope Francis' vision:
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. (Evangelii Gaudium, 49)
I pray that we may incarnate this vision of the Church.

Egan was a fine priest. His story is an important one within American Catholicism. May his example inspire American Catholics to build the church that his preaching and witness hailed.

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